x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Best team from the best of times: Sir Alex Ferguson's excellent XI

As the great manager prepares for his final Manchester United match on Sunday, Gary Meenaghan, chooses a best XI from 27 Old Trafford years.

Egotistical and arrogant: it is amazing what a raised collar can do to a man’s reputation. In this case, Eric Cantona, who was the catalyst to Sir Alex Ferguson's early teams.
Egotistical and arrogant: it is amazing what a raised collar can do to a man’s reputation. In this case, Eric Cantona, who was the catalyst to Sir Alex Ferguson's early teams.

Peter Schmeichel (1991-99)

The Danish keeper arrived from Brondby for £550,000 (Dh3m), a transfer that Fergie later hailed as the "bargain of the century". Nobody could command a penalty box like the 6ft 4ins presence of Schmeichel, who stayed at United for eight seasons. He quite literally single-handedly kept United in many a match, including the 1999 Uefa Champions League final with Bayern Munich.

(He also deserves inclusion for having the middle name Boleslaw.)

 

Gary Neville (1993-2011)

The Mancunian made 569 appearances for United and played for no other clubs. Since becoming a TV pundit, his impressive reading of the game has been obvious, yet when he was on the pitch, it was almost just as clear. Excelling consistently at right-back, he was also highly capable of covering at centre-half, to the extent Fergie once proclaimed that "if he was an inch taller, he'd be the best centre half in Britain. His father is 6ft 2in - I'd check the milkman."

 

Jaap Stam (1998-2001)

Ferguson does not often make mistakes, but even he accepts his biggest error was selling the colossal Dutch defender too soon. Stam had been an integral figure in United's treble-winning team of 1999, bossing the defence while maintaining calm. Strong in the air and composed with the ball at his feet, the 30 year old was sold to Lazio following a bust-up with Fergie after which he was ordered to leave during a meeting in a petrol station.

 

Rio Ferdinand (2002-present)

At age 24, Ferdinand signed for a British transfer record £30m from Leeds United and immediately cemented his place in the heart of the United defence with a series of solid displays. A naturally gifted centre-half who makes mistakes as rarely as Fergie himself, the Englishman was crucial to United's 2008 Champions League success. Even with injuries, he has played more than 400 games and is expected to remain next year.

 

Denis Irwin (1990-2002)

Another shrewd transfer by Fergie, Mr Dependable arrived from Oldham Athletic for just £625,000. The Irishman was a modern-day full-back: disciplined in defence with lightning pace to aid United's quick counter attacks. A dead-ball specialist, Irwin chipped in with goals too, netting 34 times while at Old Trafford, including a well-worked 12-pass move against Wimbledon that Ferguson called his all-time favourite United goal.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (2003-09)

The Portuguese winger ripped United to pieces during a 2003 friendly with Sporting Lisbon and Fergie, having been urged on by his awestruck players, quickly opened the cheque-book and paid £12.24m for the 18 year old. Six seasons and 117 goals later, Ronaldo had helped United to three league titles, a European Cup, an FA Cup, two League Cups and the Club World Cup. In 2007/08, his penultimate season at Old Trafford before leaving for a world record £80m to Real Madrid, he scored 42 goals in 49 games.

 

Paul Scholes (1993-2013)

Pep Guardiola called him "the best midfielder of his generation." Xavi called him "The best central midfielder I've ever seen." Zinedine Zidane called him "my toughest opponent". Lionel Messi called him "a teacher." Pele said: "If he was playing with me, I would have scored many more." Fergie, in his retirement speech, said: "Paul Scholes is one of the greatest players this club has had or will have."

 

Roy Keane (1993-2005)

A player who Fergie once proclaimed would "rather die of exhaustion than lose", the Irishman came to personify United's never-say-die attitude during his 12 seasons at the club. His psychotic desire to win at all costs earned him critics (and a record 13 red cards), yet he was a natural born leader whose steady passing and fluent understanding of tactics were just as valuable as his bruising physical presence.

 

Ryan Giggs (1990-present)

The Welsh winger has been with United for all but two of Fergie's 38 trophies and will be there next season too, even after the manager has moved upstairs. Such longevity is unlikely to ever be matched and yet, despite his advancing years (he'll be 40 in November), he still has the ability to leave defenders with "twisted blood". Has scored every season since the start of the Premier League, but nothing will eclipse his 1999 FA Cup semi-final strike against Arsenal.

 

Eric Cantona (1992-97)

Egotistical and arrogant: it is amazing what a raised collar can do to a man's reputation. In 1992, Leeds United sold Cantona for £1.2m because they deemed him work-shy. Instead, he became the catalyst to Fergie's success and turned United - without a league title in 26 years - into champions. When he retired five years later, they had won the title four times. Ferguson later said the Frenchman's retirement was his "luckiest break": the 31 year old had passed his peak but such was his profile, dropping "King Eric" would have caused un problème majeur.

 

Ruud van Nistelrooy (2001-06)

The quintessential fox in the box, the Dutchman was tracked by United from the age of 16. In 2000, and on the verge of being formally unveiled, he suffered a serious knee injury. Fergie became his pen pal and at one point even turned up at his front door. Van Nistelrooy recovered and repaid the faith, joining United a year later, snatching a brace on his debut and scoring 44 goals in 53 games on route to the 2002/03 league title. When he left for Real Madrid in 2006, he had netted 150 times - and yet only once from outside the penalty box.

 

Substitutes

Edwin Van Der Sar - The Dutch keeper started his United career with five clean sheets; finished it with four league titles and a European Cup.

Nemanja Vidic - A rock in central defence, the Serb was a two-time player of the year and crucial to United's 2008 Champions League win.

Bryan Robson - The fearless English midfielder carried the team during Fergie's early days and became the club's longest-serving captain.

David Beckham - Whether it was his pinpoint crosses or his unfathomably accurate free-kicks, nobody could bend it like Beckham.

Wayne Rooney - Signed as an 18 year old, Rooney's all-action performances up front have seen him score 198 times in 359 starts.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

 

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